Viral marketing now a pandemic

iMediaConnection is running a lengthy “Viral Marketing 101” sort of piece in their In Focus section, and it stands to contribute a good deal to the degradation of the term “viral marketing,” if not to the concept itself. Could we all please agree on a worthwhile definition of this concept before it gets flogged to death?

Too late. The article cites the ubiquity of advertising catchphrases like “Yo quiero Taco Bell” and “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” as examples of highly successful viral campaigns. Hmm, I do remember that cute chihuahua, now why is that? Could it be because Taco Bell paid Chiat/Day half a billion dollars to make sure that I would? Let’s say as a rule of thumb that if your viral campaign costs the equivalent of buying every man, woman, and child in the United States a meal in your restaurant, that ain’t viral marketing. It’s just marketing.

I’m being cranky about this and the article’s other top-down examples because I think marketers are in real danger of losing the point of viral marketing entirely. I agree with the basic premise that viral marketing involves brand messages getting passed along outside of a paid media scenario. But that’s not enough; by that logic, a Pepsi-emblazoned Frisbee (sorry, flying disk) being tossed around a park is a viral campaign.

I think the essence of successful viral marketing is that the message gets passed around because the marketer cedes control over what happens after the intial set-up. That means, inherently, that heavily promoted, tightly managed brands are going to have a tougher time succeeding in viral marketing than brands whose customers already have a sense of mutual ownership. That’s why the Quicksilver YouTube campaign cited in the article was a huge success, but similar such YouTube seeding efforts by mega-brands have been miserable failures.

The big brands can get there too. White Horse just won an IAC award for a User-Generated-Content campaign for Columbia Sportswear that let users deconstruct Columbia’s longstanding “Tested Tough” campaign with tough tests of their own. By ceding control of the brand promise to users who could (and did) come up with outrageous interpretations, the company got back more than it gave in user input, participation, and pass-along.

A doubt this word ever makes it into creative briefs authored for viral campaigns, but the key ingredient here is humility — the grassroots brand stays close to its roots, or the big brand stoops to conquer. It also helps to have great creative.

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